Authors: Stephen W. Gee
Naturally, such a convergence of people brought many benefits to the city, though they were hard to see for all the detriments. Houk had art, culture, and music. It had higher learning, or at least very expensive schools that claimed to provide higher learning, which is practically the same. Magick too was well in evidence, as were enough highly trained guards and soldiers to make sure those who could perform remarkable feats of dangerous magick on a whim generally chose not to do so, or else. Houk even had a few hospitals, an idea so new that most people still avoided them out of fear that going there might make you sick—though, to be fair, that’s not all that different from how those more familiar with the concept acted. Houk had all of this and more, and all within convenient walking distance of a number of sweatshops, whorehouses, gang hideouts, drug dens, and rat-infested slums.
Whatever the reality of the loud, stinking, disease-ridden mess they lived in, humans are remarkable in their ability to focus on what they
to see rather than what’s there, and few people—and even fewer gods—are willing to discourage that. As such, Houk’s prevalence on the world stage had bred a people who were proud, forthright, and skilled in capitalistic endeavors—which is to say they were loud, arrogant, and had raised ruthless, cutthroat greediness to an art form. Or maybe the city had become a trading powerhouse because its citizens were ruthless and greedy to begin with. Whether the chicken or the egg came first didn’t matter, because they were both there now, yelling and jostling and trying to sell anything that wasn’t nailed down, and most of what was.
On one unremarkable street of this crowded, noisy city, there was a bar. It was called The Joker, though there were no clown noses, no funny wigs, nor whitewash in evidence; stand-up comedians and custard pies were likewise nowhere to be found. It was a bar like any other, just a creaky old building crammed with too many tables, insufficient lighting, and a permanent cloud of oily smoke that hung over the titular bar. Only a single comically large top hat was there to justify the name, hanging sadly from a vodka bottle nailed over the bar. It was probably better that way.
“Aaaand I hate my life,” said Mazik as he sank into his seat at the bar.
seat. He was there often enough to have a seat of his own. Probably a bad sign.
“Two beers,” said Raedren Ian’Moro, Mazik’s best friend and frequent partner in crime, or at least partner in very bad ideas that ended with them waking up in a gutter. He slid into the seat next to Mazik.
“Right away,” said the bartender.
“And two beers for me as well,” said Mazik.
The bartender cracked a ghost of a smile.
“So, what happened?” asked Raedren. In contrast to his friend, whose thin face, unkempt black hair, and hazel-blue eyes gave him an arresting profile
, Raedren was the definition of a Nice Guy. His kind features, understanding eyes, unassuming gaze, and gentle smile all conspired to say yes, he would love to hear about your problems, and no, he doesn’t mind helping you move. Add in a dash of geekiness—tall, lanky, curly brown hair and beard, glasses—and you’re a long way toward understanding him, which goes to show that sometimes stereotypes exist for a reason. Next to Mazik, Raedren looked like a sheep grazing beside a hungry wolf, and one perfectly comfortable being there.
Their drinks were deposited in front of them.
“Okay. So this day,” said Mazik, setting down his empty mug. He picked up his second one. “Let me tell you about this day.”
Several minutes passed.
“…is when he told me he’d already bought from someone else,” said Mazik. He sighed. “And that wasn’t the worst part. After that, I went over to see this guy I’ve been talking to in Trenddrali, and he—”
“Hi! Welcome to The Joker!” A cheery voice came from behind them. “Are you being taken care of?”
Mazik shuddered. “Please don’t use your happy, perky, customer-servicey voice. You know how much that weirds me out.”
A warm chuckle. “I know. That’s exactly why I do it.” A woman sat next to Mazik, a tray resting in her lap and an apron cinched around her waist. She smiled.
“So I take it you didn’t have a good day,” said Sarissa Gavin Ven’Kalil, Mazik and Raedren’s longtime friend and The Joker’s resident waiter/bouncer. Gavi, as she was known to her friends, looked like a prototypical girl next door, a kind and sensible young woman who was quite beautiful once you got past her remarkably unremarkable features (dirty blonde hair, brown eyes, tan skin, etc.). And she was, though anyone who took that to mean she was meek was in for a rude surprise, as any customer who has ever tried to get too familiar can attest. There was a reason why a slight young woman had “bouncer” in her job title, and it wasn’t as a joke. Mostly the joke was on those who thought she couldn’t kick their asses.
“No, not so much!” said Mazik with an edge of cheerful hysteria. “Not a single sale. It was a disaster.”
Gavi ruffled his hair. “Poor boy. Need a drink?”
Mazik raised his mug. “I’m good. Unless you’re offering to treat?”
Gavi snorted. “You wish.”
“Yes,” said Mazik with an exaggerated sigh, as if the weight of the entire world was bearing down on his shoulders alone. “I very much wish that.”
Gavi rapped Mazik on the head with her tray.
“Speaking of disasters, any progress on your job search?” asked Raedren.
“Ha ha ha,” said Mazik. “No, not really. Still a few potentials, but nothing that’s looking real promising.”
“Ah,” said Raedren. “That sucks. How about you?” he asked Gavi.
“I actually have an interview with the dock authority tomorrow.”
“Ooo, nice,” said Mazik. “You ready for it?”
“I think so,” said Gavi. She waved at the bartender. He nodded. “Though there’s only so much I can do to prepare with my work experience.”
“It’s that, what, clerk something job, right?” said Mazik. “I’m sure you’ll be fine. That one should be no problem for you.”
“I’m sure I can
the job, it’s just convincing them to hire me that’s the problem.”
“It always is,” said Mazik. He took a long pull from his beer.
“Well, I guess you both won’t need to look at this, but here,” said Raedren. He pulled a newspaper out of his back pocket and placed it in front of Mazik. It was open to the classifieds. “I picked this up earlier.”
“Oh, thanks,” said Mazik, picking it up. He scanned through the listings. “Forgot to grab one today.”
“Again,” said Raedren.
“I like how he says ‘forgot’ when he’s never actually remembered,” said Gavi.
“Hey, I remembered once,” said Mazik. “Probably.”
“Uh huh,” said Gavi, rolling her eyes.
“By the way, you sure you don’t need to be looking through this as well?” said Mazik, holding the paper out to Raedren. “You know you want to quit that boring job of yours.”
“My job is … fine,” said Raedren, though he didn’t sound like he meant it.
“Is that so…” said Mazik. He went back to looking through the paper. “How was your day, anyway?”
Raedren’s eyes glazed over and he shuddered. “So much pus…”
Mazik and Gavi looked at each other, and then shuddered as well. Raedren worked as an apprentice healer at a regeneration clinic, a job which
glamorous, right up until the first day of work. That’s when you realize how disgusting the human body really is, and that the vast majority of your time will be spent doing tasks so boring and repetitive they give new definition to the word
It paid well, though, which was why Raedren was still doing it. That’s not a terribly good reason to do anything for nine-plus hours a day, at least until you consider the alternative of being paid markedly less or nothing at all. When your other options include starving, lucrative boredom starts to look good.
Mazik and Gavi didn’t ask him to elaborate. They really didn’t need to know.
“How about you, Gavs?” asked Mazik.
“Let me fail at this interview before I start looking for other options.”
“It’s never too early to start preparing for your next potential failure,” said Mazik, holding out the paper. Gavi shot him a glare. Mazik chuckled.
“I actually meant your day,” said Mazik. “Anything interesting happen?”
“Oh,” said Gavi. Her hand went to the silver arrowhead hanging around her neck. “No, not really. It’s just been long and tiring.” She traced the blunt edges of her charm. “That Jern guy was hitting on me earlier, but that’s nothing new.”
“What’d you do to him?” asked Mazik.
“Nothing. The owner was here.”
The other two grimaced. Mazik turned around to examine the walls.
“Over there,” said Gavi, pointing to a spot on the back wall. Mazik followed her finger and found a blade-shaped hole drilled several centimeters into the wood. It looked like it was made by a lance, possibly thrown by an angry troll. A troll
“Glad to see he’s enjoying those knives I sold him,” said Mazik.
“Oh yes, definitely,” said Gavi, nodding emphatically. “Of course, it helps that he knew he would get anything he paid for them back eventually.”
“What can I say,” said Mazik, raising his mug. “I’m a giver.”
The three of them sat there for a time, none of them speaking.
“I need another beer,” said Mazik finally.
“Me too,” said Raedren, downing his. “Or maybe something a little stiffer.”
“Hur hur hur,” said Mazik. Raedren ignored him.
“Well, you two have fun with that,” said Gavi, standing as the bartender finally freed himself. “I’ll just keep working while you two are sitting here, relaxing and getting drunk.”
“Kaaaay,” said Mazik, with no evidence of sympathy.
“What can I get for you?” asked the bartender.
Gavi’s response was interrupted by a loud crash. They turned to find two men squaring off over a broken table, preparing to fight.
“Oh great,” said Gavi as the drunk on the left punched his opponent in the head, knocking him on his ass. A cheer rose from the rapidly coalescing audience. Gavi glanced at the clock over the bar. “Well, the first one today started later than normal, so that’s something.”
“Need any help?” asked Mazik. He, along with everyone else in the bar, didn’t seem particularly concerned about the men duking it out in their midst, save for those who were taking bets.
“Naw,” said Gavi. She held a hand out to the bartender, who passed her a scratched wooden club.
club. That was definitely a bad sign, though not for Gavi. “This won’t take long.”
“Have fun,” said Mazik, waving lazily. He turned back to his drink.
There was no change as Gavi walked over. Then the scuffle stopped. First there was Gavi’s voice, sounding reasonable. Then there was an angry bellow, followed by a meaty smack. Then everything got confusing, with fists swinging through empty the air and knees driving into stomachs, all jumbling together into a riotous, unintelligible mess. Finally, there was a sound like two electrified coconuts smacking together with a painful
There was a pained grunt, and then silence.
The bar erupted into cheers and applause. The other patrons appreciated well meted-out violence, provided it wasn’t being meted out to them.
There was a sound like a heavy sack of potatoes being dragged across the floor. “Gods, these guys are heavy….” said Gavi.
There was the clatter of someone running into a table full of drinks, and then a dull thud. “Uhm. Okay, I could use some help getting these guys outside.”
“Not it,” said Raedren.
“Not i—damn!” said Mazik. “Aaaaall right, coming!”
Once Mazik and Gavi dragged the two men outside and tossed them onto the street, they returned to where Raedren was sitting.
“You’d think they would learn,” said Gavi as she deposited some coins on the bar, which she had lifted from the two men to pay for repairs. The bartender scooped them up instantly.
“History would argue they will not,” said Mazik as he sat back down. He took a long drink from Raedren’s beer. “Hsssaaahh, that’s good!”
“Hey,” said Raedren.
“Oh, sorry,” said Mazik. He held out the beer. “Did you want some?”
Raedren looked into the mug. It was nearly empty. “No, you can keep that one.”
“So what are you guys planning for the rest of the night?” asked Gavi as she rubbed her shoulder where one of the brawlers tried to grab her.
“Drinking,” said Mazik.
“Until we can’t think properly anymore,” said Raedren.
“And then probably a bit past that,” said Mazik.
“Of course. It wouldn’t do to remember a night,” said Gavi dryly.
“Exactly!” chirped Mazik.
Gavi stuck out her tongue. “Well if you’re still conscious in about an hour, I’ve got a break coming up.”
“Oh, you don’t have to worry about me. I’ll be pretty lame tonight,” said Mazik.
“Why’s that?” Gavi deposited the club behind the bar and reclaimed her tray.
“Since I didn’t sell anything today, I’m almost out of money,” said Mazik. He slumped against the bar. “Fuck me!”
“Hur hur hur.”
* * *
Mazik, Gavi, and Raedren were sitting around a table, in a bar, drinking. This was not unusual. They were relaxing after a long week, and had been there for some time. The latest bar fight had just concluded, and as the loser was being hurled outside, Mazik noticed a pair of errand boys near the door. They were chattering excitedly. One of the boys held out a hand, and a tiny flame of magick appeared for a split second.
“I’ve got a good topic,” said Mazik. He thanked the waiter as fresh drinks arrived. “Let’s talk about when we were first learning magick.”
“When we were learning about magick, huh?” said Gavi.
“I bet that’ll lead to a few good stories we haven’t heard before,” said Mazik. “Or haven’t heard in a while, which is fun, too.”
Raedren shrugged. “Sounds good to me.”
“All right! In that case, Gavs, what did—”